Monday, 15 May 2017

On 'gay' and language policing

I had an interesting conversation with our youngest, Dominique, at breakfast this morning. She is in her final term at school (what I, in my unreconstructed fashion, think of as the Upper Sixth).

I asked her about the current use of the word gay. She was very clear that it has two quite distinct meanings in her school. The older meaning, of happy and cheerful, is not current. It is used both to mean homosexual and also something between rubbish and stupid: an all-purpose pejorative term. And which is meant is always quite clear from the context.

The latter use has no connotation of anything to do with homosexuality. So I asked if it would be wrong for someone using that term to be had up for homophobic bullying. She hemmed and hawed a bit at that. The point is that although the word is not used with that connotation, its power as a pejorative comes from the fact that it is known to be a forbidden word; and it is known that it is a forbidden word because of its potential use as a  bullying term.

Indeed, she said, it is the school banging on about it that gives the term its allure. It's precisely because it is a forbidden word that it is an appealing one.

That makes perfect sense to me.

It also seems to me that if a school is to discipline someone for using the term gay as a pejorative, the charge should not really be one of homophobia, as that is not the intention. The intention, in so far as it is malign, is to rebel against authority.

Language, of course, changes meaning over time. If one considers the word queer, one can see that. It started by meaning odd, was then applied as a discreet way of referring to homosexuals, then became an extremely offensive way of referring to them, and has since been reclaimed by at least some and become the way they prefer to describe themselves.

It is not a word I would use myself in that context; but in that word context lies another part of the complexity of language.

Which brings me to the CES document, Made in God's Image.  Here we read:
Homophobic language
This could be the casual derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ to mean something negative or the use of explicit homophobic terms.
For example: • ‘that’s so gay’, or ‘you’re so gay’; ‘those trainers are so gay’
• someone calling another student a ‘dyke’ or ‘faggot’ 
I would suggest that these are two entirely different cases. Dyke or faggot are currently both clearly offensive and derogatory terms, and it is hard to conceive of an innocent use of them, unless it is the mere repetition of them by a younger child who has heard them as insulting words but does not know what they mean (and that is always a possibility that adults should be alive to, before coming down too heavily: children often learn words in that way from other children - getting the intent and general pejorative meaning, without knowing a specific meaning).

But the meaning of gay seems to be shifting again; it is quite probable that many children use it with no homophobic intent. What then is to be done?

The thought-police mentality of the authors of Made in God's Image are in no doubt: its use is homophobic bullying. But to lay such a charge against children who may be wholly innocent, or even those who use it as a show of bravado, is an injustice. 

Further, given that it may frequently be used with no homophobic intent, is it helpful to sensitise people to it, so that homosexual people will feel attacked every time they hear it used in that way?  I worry about approaches that end up making people feel like victims unnecessarily. 

Of course, the argument would be that they want to eradicate such language; but my daughter, at least, thinks that this approach is precisely what lends it potency. And there is a lesson to be learned from Canute: like it or not, language is not subject to control.  I have a lot of sympathy for the French Academy, and their attempt to maintain certain standards through a prescriptive approach to dictionary-making. But in England, we have always tended towards a descriptive approach, and that may be wiser.  And I notice that the online Urban Dictionary gives three distinct definitions of gay...

And always, I come back to Orwell, and his insights into the use of language control to control the thoughts that people are allowed to think.  And I ask myself, are the CES entirely ignorant of the complexities of the issues that they have waded into? Or do they have an agenda, and if so, what is it?

Oh, and by the way, who paid?...

1 comment:

Patricius said...

I think it was about five years ago that I first became aware of the fact that the word "gay", in succession to its earlier subversion as a euphemism for "homosexual", been reappropriated by children as a term of distaste or abuse irrespective of whether or not the subject so described had anything to do with homosexuality. There is surely a deep irony here! The homosexualists, having debased a perfectly good and useful word for their own perverse ends, have found the tables turned against them. And they don't like it! Consequently they now wish to have it exclusively to themselves.

Out of the mouths of children!